Last night I went to Vespers for the first time in a few months. Vespers at the Orthodox Community of St Andrew here in Edinburgh is always at 6:30. Last time I was there, it was winter. 6:30 in an Edinburgh winter is black, dark night. The chapel is lit by the oil lamps hanging in front of icons and a few lights behind the iconostasis as well as a lamp on the lectern.
Vespers in May in Scotland is bright, sunny. We are still tending towards sundown (wait six weeks for Vespers in broad daylight), but there is a nice, fiery, late evening glow to the light shining in through the windows and playing on the icons, the chandelier, the censer, Father Raphael’s gilt chasuble (not sure if that’s the right word).
Shafts of light from this late evening sun illuminate the clouds of incense.
It is fitting, in this Easter season, to sing and pray in the light, for Christ is the light of the world.
Last night, I was also appointed lector for about 5 minutes. I read out a Psalm and recited, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ several times during some of the prayers.
I think Alexander Schmemann said that it takes 46 books to do the whole cycle of Orthodox services. Father Raphael and I were having a bit of difficulty finding where we were meant to be — Feast of Mid-Pentecost along with St Simon the Zealot and Tuesday evening — but Father Avraamy arrived, saved the day and took over as reader.
There is a different comfort here from winter, a brighter invitation at the Feast of Mid-Pentecost than in the bleak mid-winter.
The little chapel was lit only by ambient light from the sides, the chandelier from the ceiling turned off — this, of course, augmented by the lights on Fr. Raphael’s lectern and the glowing candles in the lamps before the iconostasis and those lit by the faithful before the icons near the door.
Icons hung on the four walls of the room as well as on the iconostasis, although not completely covering this piece of ecclesiastical furniture which was made from simple timbers and boards, no fancy carvings in sight. Although the chapel had no dome (I believe Fr. John lives upstairs), a circular icon of Christ Pantokrator was mounted to the ceiling above the nave.
When the curtain in the iconostasis opened, I could see the Holy Table* with an ornate cross with two other ornate objects flanking it; they reminded me of monstrances, but I knew they couldn’t be since Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a western phenomenon associated with the 13th-century feast of Corpus Christi.
Fr. Raphael stood at his lectern in the back left corner of the chapel and chanted and sang Vespers. There were Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, Kyries, and many others. Amidst these beautiful hymns and chants were hymns for St. Ambrose of Milan whose feast was the next day. These were beautiful and complex, verse homilies in miniature, teaching us of the life and teachings of St. Ambrose, praying that our faith might mirror his.
My Sundays of worship at Evensong at St. Alban’s in Ottawa as well as the many nights I have prayed Compline alone gladdened my heart when Fr. Raphael sang the Nunc Dimittis. I mouthed the words silently along with him.
Every once in a while, I would see Fr. John behind the iconostasis, standing before the Holy Table, bowing, praying, and chanting a few portions of the order for Vespers himself. At one point, Fr. John censed the Holy Table and then proceed out from behind the iconostasis with the censer. He censed the doors, the icons of the day posted near the doors, Theodore, me, and Fr. Raphael, before proceeding back to his position behind the iconostasis.
Theodore, a young Romanian student of electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and I were the only two congregants for most of Vespers last night. We stood at the back, crossing ourselves at the right moments and lifting up our hearts to God. Using skills developed at Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic services, I kept half an eye on Fr. Raphael to know when to cross myself. I tried to listen to the words of the service, but sometimes, especially when the chanting became singing, I got caught up in the melody and lost track of the words.
I prayed the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) many times over. My charismatic upbringing also manifested itself in the quiet praying in tongues through the movement of the Holy Spirit in that quiet, holy space. At times, my mind wandered as I stood there, thinking about Eastern Orthodoxy, liturgy, and worship, as well as St. Ambrose. Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the fact that my back was hurting.
I sat down. Theodore had already done so, so I didn’t feel bad about it.
Within about a minute of having sat down, Fr. Raphael called me over to his four-platformed spinning lectern to read.
I read the Trisagion, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer to St. Ambrose, and a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I may have prayed something else, but those are the prayers that stand out in my mind. Fortunately, I know enough of Orthodox liturgy to have been able to pray the Glory Be without printed words properly.
After this beautiful service, we retired to the church hall for tea and cake. I met Theodore and Dimitri, and had a conversation with Fr. Raphael about Pope St. Leo the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria. Then, as it was about 8:15 and I hadn’t had supper, I went home.
I have a strange habit of collecting liturgies. Right now I’m house-cat-dog-sitting for my parents while they’re out of the country. For this trip, I brought both the Book of Common Prayer and Celebrating Common Prayer. Back home in Toronto, I have an older BCP with the text of 1662, the Book of Alternative Services, and The Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom. I used to own the Roman Lauds, Vespers, Compline, but I found that it was just modern translations of things for which I had better, more beautiful translations in the BCP. I think that is all the books of liturgies I own.*
In a file folder I also have liturgies borrowed and pilfered from various churches and events, including at least one I composed myself. On this computer, I have a folder called “Medieval Liturgy,” in which you can find “Tridentine Vespers” (a translation of the same cut and pasted from www.breviary.net), “OE Benedictine Office” (containing prefaces for Morning and Evening prayer in Old English from a Benedictine breviary), and “A Mediaeval Vespers” (my personal translation and tweaking of the Sarum Vespers for Tuesdays). Lying on my desk at home is a liturgical reflection on the Trinity from a mediaeval English prayer book waiting to be taken from Latin into English.
Today I was quite pleased to receive in the mail more liturgies!
These are those used by an Anglican priest of my acquaintance in Cyprus. They are “A Service of Scripture and Prayer for Morning and Evening,” “Canticles,” and two different versions of “A Service of Morning Prayer.” Just before writing this I used “A Service of Scripture and Prayer for Morning and Evening.” I liked it! Since I’ve been using the BCP lectionary for my personal Bible readings, I just slipped them in for the lessons!
I like liturgical prayer for various reasons, some of them noted in my post on the Daily Office. Sometimes I feel a bit bewildered by the array of liturgies available for use these days — for the office, for the Eucharist, for specific occasions, for use by families, for all sorts of reasons, times, and places. However, there is some comfort in it. The regularity of the BCP is strong, sustaining, comforting, rooted.
But sometimes . . .
Sometimes, you want new words, and not necessarily your own. Raised evangelical/charismatic, I’m well-acquainted with extemporaneous prayer. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to try out new words that aren’t your own. Words or structures of prayer that you haven’t seen yet. Or a new version of an old thing. These arrays of liturgies now pouring out into the world since the liturgical “renewal” of the sixties/seventies can be a blessing to those things.
Nevertheless . . . nevertheless, with all my liturgies, I’m still rooted to and with the BCP with its beautiful Elizabethan language and strong Reformation theology. Were I stranded on a desert island and could have only two books, one would be my travel-sized NKJV (you need something portable on those desert islands) and the other would be my aged, weatherworn BCP.
*I have other books of prayers, though, such as A St. Francis Prayer Book, and a book of prayers for men, and Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation of The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm. Plus, of course, the Hymn Book.